Lois Lenski was born on October 14, 1893 to a Lutheran minister and a schoolteacher who raised their daughter in Anna, Ohio.
Her third grade teacher encouraged her to draw. She traced flowers from seed catalogs and filled them in with watercolors. She copied magazine covers. Until she was fourteen she used a twenty-five cent box of Prang paints. An artist lived with their family while he painted the fresco at Lois’ father’s new church. He told the family, “This child has talent. She needs a better box of paints.” Lois’ father gave the painter three dollars and he bought her a box of twenty Windsor Newton watercolors. The artist said it would last her a lifetime. “It nearly did, being replaced only once.” No one ever suggested that she draw the life she saw around her, encouraging her instead to copy other artwork. It wasn’t until she went to college that she began to study art.
Graduating in 1915 from Ohio State University with a BS in education, Ms. Lenski declined to teach. Instead, she traveled to New York City to study at the Art Students League from 1915 to 1920. She also took illustration classes at the School of Industrial Arts, where she studied with Arthur Covey, a well-known mural painter. She asked to be his assistant during the summer while he painted murals at department stores. Ms. Lenski studied at the Westminster School of Art in London from 1920 to 1921. After her return from Europe, she married Arthur Covey and became stepmother to his two children.
The first book she illustrated was Children’s Frieze Book for Platt & Munk. They paid her one hundred dollars. Helen Dean Fisher, the art director at Stokes, suggested that she try writing to accompany her illustrations. The first book she both wrote and illustrated was Skipping Village, published in 1927. Lois Lenski gave birth to her son, Stephen, in 1929. Her picture books reflected her observations of her son and his friends as they grew. The “Little” and “Small” books were drawn for them. The Little Family, The Little Auto, Cowboy Small, Policeman Small are just a few. Many of these titles are being reissued today. She is perhaps most well-known for her historical and regional series of books. The ALA awarded Bayou Suzette a Newbery Medal in 1946. Two of her books received Newbery honors: Phebe Fairchild: Her Book in 1937 and Indian Captive: the Story of Mary Jemison in 1942. Arguably, Strawberry Girl is probably the best-known of all of her books. Many fans know her best for her illustrations of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books.
The author and illustrator of more than 100 books, Lois Lenski published her autobiography, Journey Into Childhood, in 1972. She died at her home in Florida in 1974, at the age of 80.